Paying for Past Sins

Most readers of these lines will not have been around when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs first on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later. I was myself only a kid, but clearly remember that although folks didn’t celebrate in the streets of my home town, San Francisco, as they soon would when Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War II (the Germans had already stopped fighting), there was real rejoicing.

I don’t recall adult relatives, the parents of friends or anybody else saying, “This is terrific because it will end the war,” although I suppose that thought may have been on minds of some. What I remember is: “We wiped out an entire city with just one bomb!” and “The Japs deserved this. They attacked us first.” Of course “entire city” included the “Japs” — women, children and civilian men — who lived in it.

We are going to ignore it here that ground zero in Hiroshima was a Catholic church and that Nagasaki, a city founded by Portuguese, was the principal historical center of Christianity in Japan. There are other points to be made in the lines that follow and in another installment of this article that will be posted on the SBC website in a few weeks.

Friends of Saint Benedict Center will know from the writings of Sr. Catherine Goddard Clarke and my own After the Boston Heresy Case that jubilation over the nuclear obliteration of Japanese population centers was not universal among Americans. At the Center, then located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sr. Catherine, Fr. Feeney and the young men and women around them were aghast. So were some other U.S. Catholics, notably Dorothy Day and the men and women of the Catholic Worker movement, but they were doctrinaire pacifists opposed to war even in national self-defense. That was not the position of the Center. Some of its men had enlisted as soon as the U.S. went to war, not waiting to be drafted, and many veterans would enroll in its academic program after their discharge from the armed services. That non-combatants were the target of our nuclear bombs is what the men and women of the Center found to be morally abhorrent.

Why didn’t most Americans, including the great majority of U.S. Catholics, recoil in the same way? Why were so many positively elated?

The fact is the U.S., and before we joined the war our British allies, had been deliberately targeting civilian population centers, cities, in Japan, Germany and elsewhere for years, killing as many persons and destroying as much property as possible, but with “conventional” bombs. (For example, a single raid with incendiary bombs on Tokyo killed 84,000. In seven days, within nine square miles of Hamburg, Germany, 77 percent of that city of 1.8 million souls, were wiped out. The destruction of Dresden, crammed beyond capacity by refugees fleeing from the advance of the Red Army in the east, may have killed as many as a half million.)

As a people, we had not become simply inured to the deliberate killing of so many and destruction of so much. We expected it. Indeed, the significance of battlefield tactics as well as the larger strategic picture being beyond the grasp of average Americans, including most of the soldiers doing the fighting, success in the war came to be measured according to the number of Germans and Japanese killed and the extent to which their cities were destroyed.

What is vital for the reader to understand is that the killing and destruction were deliberate. As was explained at the time by Target: Germany, an official U.S. Army Air Force publication, at the Casablanca conference in January, 1943, U.S. and British air forces were directed by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to accomplish “the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened…. Bombs behind the fighting fronts may rob armies of their vital supplies and make war so terrible that civilian populations will refuse to support the armed forces in the field….”

In keeping with the Anglo-American policy of deliberately targeting civilians, every German city of any consequence was devastated by the end of the war. Yet, as would be learned, it did not “undermine the morale” of the German people or cause them to “refuse to support” their armed forces. On the contrary, it strengthened their will to resist. They said to themselves, “If the Americans and British will do this to us when they aren’t even here, the nightmare if their troops were on our soil is unimaginable.” Thus did the policy actually prolong the war.

It also violated the principles governing the conduct of warfare that Christians held from the days when St. Augustine first laid them out and all through the centuries when Christendom existed. After all, the Christian knight, the ideal warrior, was sworn specifically to defend the defenseless — women, children, the aged. Further, having abandoned those principles and come to accept the deliberate targeting of cities and the people in them first by “conventional” bombs and then nuclear ones, when World War II was followed by the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, we made the targeting of Soviet population centers with nuclear missiles the cornerstone of U.S. national defense strategic policy.

In 1969 I wrote a series of articles on the immorality of that policy for Triumph magazine, at that time the country’s leading conservative Catholic periodical. A U.S. Air Force major named Robert Margetts and his conscientious objection to the policy figured in the articles. The next installment of the present article will deal with the policy and also a project on which Margetts recently embarked. This because we tend to forget, now that the U.S. and Russia are not targeting each other’s cities with their missiles, that the missiles can be retargeted in fifteen minutes; and 2) there is a current candidate for President who sounds as if he doesn’t believe the Cold War is really over (“Russia is our number-one geopolitical foe,” he has said).

For now, we conclude with a quote from Of Flight and Life, by Charles A. Lindbergh. One of the twentieth century’s most arresting American figures, Lindbergh was not a practicing Christian of any kind. However, by the time he wrote this particular book in 1948 he had lost his faith in the unlimited power and benefit of science and technology. He lost it in Germany in 1945 when he saw lying in ruin all the cities of a nation that cultivated science brilliantly. He wrote: “As the fallen walls of Coventry should have warned Germany of the fate of her own cities, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be a warning to America. Our atomic bombs return to haunt us, and in our science we foresee our doom.”

I see the doom — the price to be paid for what the nation did in World War II and intended to do all during the Cold War — as possibly upon us now. It simply isn’t taking the form Lindbergh envisioned.

(To be continued)

Footnote: A month ago this website posted an article by me, “What Does a Saint Look Like?” that largely had to do with Eva Peron. On the sixtieth anniversary of her death, July 26, Argentina put into circulation a new 100-peso banknote. It bears a portrait of Evita. Heretofore, Argentine currency, like that of the U.S., has mainly featured portraits of founders of the republic such as Jose de San Martin (their George Washington). That Evita is now included in the pantheon testifies to the place she continues to hold in the minds and hearts of her compatriots despite the efforts of detractors.